Youth Lead Movement to Extend New York’s Honors for Sojourner Truth

Ulster County just designated a Sojourner Truth Day — and this group behind it is just getting started

By Mazuba Kampambwe

Jessica Alonso never really envisioned herself as an activist. But for the last few months, Kingston YMCA Farm Project Youth Crew member, along with her colleagues Aleshanee Emmanuel and Briana Gary, has been leading teen group discussions of anti-racist activism.

As they dove deeper, they came to believe that Sojourner Truth, an African American woman born into slavery in Ulster County, was not being credited enough for her range of ground-shaking work. Among her efforts: Truth advocated for the abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage, recruited Black troops to the Union Army during the Civil War, helped formerly enslaved people receive federal grant aids and successfully sued a white man on behalf of her son — becoming the first Black woman to seek justice through the U.S. courts and win.

Youth reflect at local Sojourner Truth statue. (Photo courtesy Jessica Alonso)

Alonso, Emmanuel, Gary and their colleagues decided that Ulster County should declare a day in honor of the abolitionist. “I always thought Kingston should have a Sojourner Truth Day,” Alonso says. “She is a local hero, she was born in Ulster County, so I thought she should be honored.”

The Town of Esopus (home of the 11-mile Sojourner Truth Freedom Trail) and the City of Kingston agreed to recognize such a day in their municipalities this year. On Nov. 17, with the Youth Crew looking proudly on, the county legislature agreed to extend the recognition. It designated Nov. 26, the recorded date of Truth’s death, as Sojourner Truth Day throughout Ulster County.

The youth-led movement received support from Kingston Mayor Steve Noble, as well as Peter Criswell, the Ulster County Legislator for District 7 in the City of Kingston. “There’s such a good local connection with Sojourner Truth’s story that it just makes sense to honor her legacy on the county level,” Criswell says. “Optics are important. When a young Black girl sees that a Black woman is elevated to a position of having a day named after her, it leads to a connection of understanding.”      

Sojourner Truth (Photo via Library of Congress)

Next, Emmanuel plans to petition that the holiday become recognized as an annual one locally. And her group hopes to work with New York State legislators to designate Sojourner Truth Day as a state-recognized holiday as well. 

The youth activists plan to take a reflective, socially distanced walk on Nov. 26 and suggest others do so as well. 

Sojourner Truth Day builds on recent recognitions in the Hudson Valley that further her legacy — and offer new places to take that reflective walk.

The new Sojourner Truth Trail at Shaupeneak Ridge (Photo via Scenic Hudson)

Scenic Hudson recently installed a Sojourner Truth interpretive trail at its Shaupeneak Ridge park that highlights her life’s journey. Shaupeneak was a significant site in Truth’s life, since she walked — she purposefully did not run, she would later say — to freedom with her baby over the ridge.

Another spot to consider visiting: The Walkway Over the Hudson, where a new 7-foot bronze statue of Sojourner Truth was unveiled on the Highland side of the walkway in August. The statue was made by Yonkers-based sculptor Vinnie Bagwell.